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246                                                                                                             B. POLEVOI
Growing a beard! At a time like this! It's very dangerous
over there, isn't it? Tell me, Alyosha, isn't it? People are
saying such terrifying things about Stalingrad!"
"They're fighting there."
Alexei frowned and sighed. He envied all those who
were there, on the Volga, where that gigantic battle about
which everybody was talking was raging.
They talked the whole evening, thoroughly enjoyed
their supper of tinned meat, and as the other room was
boarded up, they, like comrades, turned in in the same
room, Anyuta on the bed and Alexei on the couch, and
at once fell into the deep sleep of youth.
When Alexei awoke and sat up on the couch,
sunbeams were already slanting into the room. Anyuta
had gone. He found a note pinned to the back of the
couch: "Have hurried off to the hospital. There is tea on
the table and bread in the cupboard; I have no sugar.
Will not be able to get away again before Saturday. A."
All these days Alexei scarcely left the house. Having
nothing to do, he mended the old woman's primus-stoves,
kerosene-stoves, saucepans and electric switches, and at
her request he even mended the coffee grinder of that
awful Alevtina Arkadyevna who, incidentally, had not
yet returned the enamelled milk can. In this way he got
into the good graces of the old woman as well as of her
husband, who worked for the Building Trust, was active
in the air defence brigade, and was also absent from
home for days and nights on end. The old couple arrived
at the conclusion that while tankmen were very nice fel-
lows, of course, airmen were in no way inferior to them,
and even, when you know them better, proved to be a
serious, home-loving lot in spite of their airy profession.
At last, the day came for Alexei to go to the Personnel
Department to get the decision. He spent the night before
on the couch with his eyes open. In the morning, he got
up, shaved, washed, appeared at the office exactly to the
minute and was the first to walk up to the desk of the
major in the Administration Service who was to decide
his fate. He disliked that major the moment he set eyes
on him. Without looking up at Alexei, as if he had not
seen him come up, he continued to busy himself at the
desk, taking out and sorting folders, telephoned to various